It’s Show/Don’t Tell for Director Christopher Nolan’s Nonlinear World War II Super-production


The cherishing of a momentary image, immutable in its delicacy and precision of framing, begins to assume obsessive proportions as shot after shot rolls inexorably away. It is as if the very perfection of the image is the cause of its transience.”

That’s author Joseph McBride’s consideration of World War II veteran filmmaker John Ford’s depth of image, a not-refutable strength throughout the seminal American director’s canon. In Ford’s then-contemporary 1945 WWII film They Were Expendable, the weary souls of the beatdown and exhausted soldiers, visibly communicated in simple yet elegant black and white long shots made up of mud, tire tracks and man after man dragging himself along to wherever that road goes, is dare I say, what sticks most greatly.

Such is the case with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, itself also a World War II story steeped in national pride but tempered with morbid truth. Like Ford, it straddles being both collective therapy and propaganda all at the same time. Dunkirk radiates unabashed patriotism for Nolan’s own homeland, England, even while depicting the effects of war on a fragile, individual level. When Samuel Fuller, another filmmaking American WWII veteran, said that the best tribute to the troops is to simply tell the truth of their plight, Nolan seems to have heard him. It may not be a literal truths in every sense, but it is most certainly full of earnest ones.

A 70mm celluloid wonder of authentic ships and planes and manpower, Dunkirk rallies the populace for selfless deliverance and national pride in a time of utter tumult.

Consequently, Dunkirk is old fashioned in the grandest of senses. Telling the story of the civilian nautical rescue efforts to save 338,000 stranded British soldiers trapped in the German occupied titular portion of France, Nolan manages to lean even farther back into cinema’s strong roots – the late silent era. Indeed a bold effort in that not only is dialogue kept to an extreme (and refreshing) minimum – a notable first for the revered filmmaker – but the whole of Dunkirk essentially plays out like the greatest of silent cinema at its glorious apex.

By the mid 1920’s, both the general use and chain of command in utilizing the apparatus that is moving pictures was long settled. It was a time of visionary grandeur and innovative bravado in the best that the time had to offer. Favored genres had emerged, among them, the war film. This is quite sensible, considering the ways cinema can communicate the visceral and kinetic aspects of the military combat experience. War films such as Wings and The Big Parade told artistically fictionalized tales from all-too-true recent events.

Yet today, the historic war film is among the least popular type of movies. Such is the cultural barometer, at any rate. A Dunkirk may have a rough go appealing to today’s audiences, particularly stateside. But, lest we forget, American Sniper was a major hit, and even the pacifist heroics of Hacksaw Ridge found an audience. From Wings to Hacksaw, true stories all – if historically “honest” to quite varying degrees.

Now we have Dunkirk. A major wartime retelling so old fashioned (Nolan leaves the gore and grizzle of war to our post-Private Ryan subconscious, maintaining a PG-13, albeit no less situationally intense than the R’s) that some may consider it experimental. Nolan’s film is perhaps nationalist to a fault AND something that would play perfectly well with the sound off.

But, don’t really turn the sound off. The audio-scape of Dunkirk is a you-are-there achievement, a triumph in itself. The humming sputter of the planes, the chronic splashing of waves, the clatter and booms of the bombs and the boats – it is key to the film’s magnificence. Amid that is another cutting edge score by Hans Zimmer, an aspect of Dunkirk where the term “experimental” can truly apply. While not completely removed from his music for The Dark Knight and Inception, the minimalist foghorns et cetra are given a rest. This is a ultra-current pulse-pounder of sonic formalism in a more filled out way, played (one suspects) on scrapyard findings rather than traditional instruments. The too-prolific composer was obviously inspired this time around, generating one of his best works in several years.

If Dunkirk hits dicey waters, it is on two fronts:

  1. Nolan has boldly chosen to begin the film mid-events, leaving audience members not in the know of history conceivably in the billowing dust. Spielberg pulled something not dissimilar with his own narratively aloof WWII super-production, Empire of the Sun, which starred Nolan’s Batman, Christian Bale when he was but a singing wee lad.
  1. Like Inception and Interstellar before it, Dunkirk finds new ways to cinematically bend time. Unlike those more showy efforts, both of which incorporated flexible chronology into their central plots, Dunkirk more stealthily weaves three temporally removed aspects of the Big Picture tale together, constructing a slyly conventional narrative through cross-cutting, presenting time jump after time jump that may well play as imperceptible. They are the three separate entities of the Dunkirk tale told here: The Mole, lasting one week; the Sea, lasting one day; and the Air Combat, which lasted only one hour. Nolan and his editor mix and match them according to tension and release rather than what would’ve really happened when. Again, time becomes putty in the movies. Chronology in the hands of a first class film editor.

Underneath it it all is the cast, willing chess pieces on a filmmaking game board, not unlike the large-scale maps that generals would strategize battles with. Recognizable faces are scarce, and rendered all the scarcer by the sheer volume of similar young, white males all dressed alike. Add the common layers of sweat and soot and Dunkirk has the most properly muddled combat film cast collage since Black Hawk Down. No star egos permitted here.

Distinguished standouts include Kenneth Branagh as Naval Commander Bolton; Mark Rylance as a devoted citizen rescuer who faces greater risk than he knew; and Cillian Murphy as the shellshocked soldier Rylance rescues. Pulling their weight amid the uniformed masses are James D’Arcy, Fionn Whitehead, and pop star Harry Styles. Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan help out on the civilian side. Nolan also sees fit to once again obscure Tom Hardy behind a mask for most of the film. This time, the malleable actor plays a heroic fighter pilot. Their faces, however indistinguishable in the many assorted moments, as well as their slumped and downtrodden figures, are at the living heart of the emotionally aloof picture.

Which brings us back around the power of image. Throughout Dunkirk, Nolan, along with his cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and his production designer Nathan Crowley, conjure vision after vision that in their own way, becomes the story. Indelible images they are, transient in their momentary perfection. They capture the world of this trapped beachfront hell in all of its worn reality. It’s the way the paint is flaking en masse off of the painted doc. The way the grimy suds of the ocean water washes up for its umpteen hundredth time. The way enemy leaflets rain from the sky, their proclamation of “You are surrounded!” a typical fragmentary exclamation of the film’s situation. The way such a quaint and beautiful town has become the dead end in a labyrinth, with the Minotaur closing in. In it, figures are placed, posed, and positioned, but never falsely, never stagy. This is not Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (its own director’s cut one of the only other rare examples of a contemporary WWII film with deliberately old fashioned sensibilities).

Being Christopher Nolan’s shortest film in quite some time, but no less ambitious than the heights he’s come to scale, Dunkirk packs in as much as it asks of its audience. As old fashioned as the films it’s characters would’ve grown up on, Nolan wisely leans on our culturally shared experiences of Saving Private Ryan‘s D-Day and so many other bloody depictions, freeing this film to convey shell shock in relative bloodless fashion. It’s as informed by its own cinematic history as it is actual history. It is also a certain maturing for the filmmaker, stepping beyond the guilt-driven narratives he’s been mired in for so long. The British guilt inherent in the helplessness of the Dunkirk situation is offset by the bravery of the citizenry who step up in the most desperate of hours. A 70mm celluloid wonder of authentic ships and planes and manpower, Dunkirk rallies the populace for selfless deliverance and national pride in a time of utter tumult.